Sunday, March 29, 2009

what they carry

on our way back into the classroom from our fire drill on friday afternoon (really, friday afternoon fire drill? that is just evil) a little girl pulled me aside. we had about 10 minutes before the buses were going to be called and i didn't really have time to talk to her. we had book bags to get out, chairs to stack, letters to hand out, a floor to sweep.

"you know N." she said, "he just told me that his daddy hit his mommy so hard she had to go to the hospital and he had to go to jail" her big eyes said everything she wasn't saying as she whispered this to me.

i bent down so i'd be eye level with her.

"N's daddy is in jail because he hit his mommy so hard in the face that he had to go to jail and she had to go to the hospital. but, my daddy, he's never done that. because...." she pauses, to try to find an explanation that would make her understand why her daddy isn't in jail like her friend's. "because he's a nice daddy." she finally decided. "i think."

i hugged her and wondered what to say. i had been planning on rushing them to pack up their book bags, ordering them around like little soldiers. and here she was, gripping my hand, looking for answers. so i told her what a good friend she was to listen to that story from N. and that it was smart of her to tell a teacher about the story because i could tell she wanted to talk about it, but asked her not to tell any of the other kids. that's N's job. "what a good friend you are for listening" i said again, when i realized i didn't know what else to say to her. but probably, that's what N needed- someone to listen. the burdens our six year olds carry.

Friday, March 27, 2009

size matters

i was on gym duty wednesday morning when a second grader came up to me. "dude, mine is so much bigger than yours!" he said.

"excuse me?" i asked, scared to even know what he was talking about.

"see" he put his hand under his shirt and pulled out a fake gold chain with a large plastic cross covered in fake diamonds.

he pointed to the small, tasteful celtic cross i was wearing.

"mine's SO MUCH bigger!" he announced and then gave a high five to his friend.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

scrapbooking 101

We're currently in our two week intersession where students get to take two different classes- one in the morning and one in the afternoon. since we're year-round it's two weeks that would be a part of our summer break and we get paid extra to teach classes. it means we kind of get to be like super tenured professors at small liberal arts colleges- we get to teach courses about any speciality we'd like.
i of course, chose a class that is the definition of organized chaos. we're scrapbooking and it mainly involves letting the children have almost 2 and a half hours of arts and crafts time. i stop them occasionally to show them a new technique or to add another sort of special paper to the stack, but mainly they work on their own.
and make a big, big mess. which i am constantly telling them is ok- as long as we clean it up really, really well at the end. i love watching some of them embrace this new messy philosophy and others struggle with the idea that i'm telling them it is ok to be messy. some do really well with the open-endness of it all. and others seem lost- you mean, you're not going to tell me exactly what to put on my paper? i don't understand. if they bring in pictures from home they are welcome to use those (as long as mom or dad said it was ok for the pictures to be cut, glued, stapled, etc) but for the many who don't they draw their own memories.

this little boy suddenly came up with the idea of framing his picture with christmas trees. his picture had nothing to do with christmas trees and his measurements were completely off so in the end you can't actually tell they are trees- but regardless he spent the better part of an hour carefully cutting out each tree and pasting it onto his border paper. then he became inspired by the way the orange paper looked with the white tree trunks and he started another border paper where he cut out the orange paper to match the white-trunk pattern.

i teach them to measure (all of the pages for their books must be 9 inches by 9 inches) and then i teach them to measure the border paper that goes around their picture. while i personally would never take the time to measure like this for my own scrapbook, it's good for them to know how to use rulers right? (plus there was a time when i could have told you the SOL number for that state requirement).
tomorrow i'll introduce them to ed emberly's picture pies and we'll work on making small paper cut outs using fractions.

the problem is i find myself torn between making sure everyone is doing a scrap booking activity (this is school and i'm suppose to be in charge- right?) and letting it become an arts and crafts extravaganza (the chaos part). a boy today began teaching others how to make water colors like eric carle. before i knew it his entire table were crumbling up their papers and dipping them into the watercolor brush water. while the outcome was awesome the paint dripped across the floor and their tables (and their clothes). yesterday a group decided to take the scrap paper and make hats for themselves. they put a lot of effort into these hats but today i crushed their little hat making dreams because it wasn't something for their scrapbook- but really, when else will they have such freedom with a set of arts and crafts activities and someone saying, "you know what, be creative? what else can you do with that scrap paper?" hmmmm.... maybe i'll let just have everyone make a "scrapbooking hat" tomorrow. don't we all work better when we have costumes?

Monday, March 23, 2009

my teeth are falling!

this morning, on the first day of intersession, my bff ran straight by me in the hallway with his father chasing after him. my bff was yelling, "stop! get away! no talking! leave me alone!" as he darted his way through the stream of children heading toward the gym.

his father looked extremely embarrassed (and oh how i've been there) yet concerned and wanting to talk with me. not only was it the first day of our new schedule, but my bff has a loose tooth- his first ever. and he is NOT ok with this development.

i imagine that if you do not fully understand what is happening this would be a very disturbing feeling- to suddenly have what you thought was always strong and sturdy to become wiggly and then to be told it was going to fall out. your comfortable world would shatter. no wonder someone invented the tooth fairy.

poor little guy.

"typically developing"

tonight in my grad school class we were put into break out groups to discuss what is typical language and social development for preschoolers. after debating with my group members for awhile i was forced to face reality. while i know the typical development of the kindergarten students who enter my school, that does not mean i know what is typically developing for the general population. i forget this. forget there are students who come into kindergarten knowing their alphabet, the sounds associated with those letters, their name, and how to use language to socially communicate their needs. as i debated what was 'typical' with my group (who was very confused at why i was putting these skill levels so low) i was slowly reminded of the vast skills my students have to make up in order to be at the same level as their 'typically developing peers'. and by 'my students' i don't just mean my special ed students- i mean the majority of the kindergarten students i work with.

the guest speaker (tina stanton-chapman) who does research on early intervention with preschoolers shared some staggering statistics. more than 50% of preschool children who have poor language and social skills will have significant social problems as an adult- they are more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, get a divorce, lose their job, or continue to have social problems that will impact their relationships with others. the development of antisocial behavior begins in early childhood from poor parental discipline and monitoring of student behavior (patterson, debaryshe, & ramsey, 1989), which leads to conduct problems. in middle childhood the student is more likely to be rejected by a normal peer group and more likely to experience academic failure, which leads to a commitment to a deviant peer group, in turn leading to delinquency in adolescence and beyond.

the depressing nature of this is that a significant number of the kindergartners i work with this year fit into the first box of poor parental discipline leading to conduct problems. we've called child protective services more times than i can count this year for these little ones, and we see their frustration and hurt come out in the classroom through aggression, withdrawn behavior, and an inability to monitor and regulate their emotions. and while we may have made baby steps with them they are only baby steps. about to go on to first grade they are still far below the list i was given tonight of 'typically developing social and linguistically competent skills' for children ages 3-5. we haven't caught up yet. and next year school will be harder, with a lot less opportunities to practice using social language, less opportunities for play, higher demand of academic skills.

i think of my little ones unable to communicate with each other, with their parents, with us- unable to monitor their behavior, regulate their emotions- and wonder where they will be 20 years from now. will they have learned these skills? will someone have stepped in and taught them? will they develop over time, slowly, until they catch up with the rest of the population, or will they become a part of the statistic- unable to control their emotions and behavior, unable to communicate their needs- will they end up in jail, or be unable to manage a healthy relationship with a significant other?

as the speaker discussed her intervention for preschool students i frantically took notes in hopes of putting something like it in place when we return from intersession. i feel like grasping onto anything which may give our little ones a step toward those skills so many other 5 year olds had before entering kindergarten. the tax return is going straight into buying some of these materials and creating my own little workshops... we have 9 more weeks and although i started class depressed by the reminder of how behind my students really are, i left feeling like there may be something i can at least try before we send them out the door.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

seeing red

admittedly i am suppose to be working on a one page abstract for my grad school class tomorrow and i am absolutely failing at accomplishing that task. so instead i checked blogs.

i haven't formed the sentences to begin to write about this, but i think everyone should read this about the kipp program. this is a very close account to what i've heard from teachers at the charter schools in dc (not kipp, but other schools).

if i start writing about it right now i'll never get my paper done. but you should read this. because while i wish i could love the idea of charter schools, this is exactly like the stories i've heard about what happens there. yet it is so rare to see anything in print that's not glowing about their practices.

Friday, March 20, 2009


a sweet little boy completing his second year of kindergarten came up to me at the end of the day today, dragging his friend behind him. his friend, a fellow kindergartner who just finished reading 'tales of a fourth grade nothing' (not kidding) looked confused at why he was being brought up to me.

the boy pointed to his friend, looked at me straight in the eyes and asked in an innocent, yet inquisitive voice- "why can he read?"

as though i'd decided to give the gift of reading to one of them and not the other.

"but i can't read. i've tried" he said. "why can he?"

what do you say? memories of my own reading struggles came back- watching the children fly through books in kindergarten when i was wrestling with my own easy books. what do you say?

"that's why you come to school! so we can teach you to read!" i said, "we'll get there! some of us just learn faster than others."

the look on his face didn't look like he bought it.

what would hannah montana do?

we had another jump rope performance at another school in our county. it's amazing to go visit different schools in our county and see the differences that exist. this was a brand new school (well, almost- 6 years old) with flat screen monitors hanging where bulletin boards would be. the monitors cycled through pictures of students learning along with pictures of their work. the gym was a real gym with nice equipment and lots of space.
of course, the biggest difference was the population. i counted maybe 10 "diverse" kids, compared to our team, which represents just about 20 different countries for 24 kids (and no americans this year). one thing that struck me was the college sweatshirts- some of the kids were wearing college sweatshirts- but not in a 'sports-team' way. shirts for colleges like bucknell, washington and lee, davidson- the smaller colleges that one would only wear a shirt from if one's parents had gone there. it made me realize i'd never seen one of our kids in a sweatshirt from a college other than va tech, or george mason- common schools in our area. just an odd observation....

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~
our kids were rock stars today. or, as a little one corrected me, 'jump-stars'. the students mobbed them after the performance, asking them to sign anything they had- napkins, wrappers from their lunch, their cheeks. they walked by our girls and made hearts with their hands. they stared at us while we ate. they waved and waved and waved. as we walked by they gasped.

and of course, our kids ate it up. they signed whatever was put in front of them, waved back, and giggled like crazy at the hearts. i was worried we wouldn't be able to fit all of those large heads back on the bus, but it was worth it. at first they seemed embarrassed but, once asked, "well, what would hannah montana do?" they seemed to fall happily into the role of rock star.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

best birthday present

today during writing workshop I asked a little one if she needed paper. "nope I've got some" she mumbled behind her writing folder. she continued writing, occasionally asking for help with word or some sounds. finally she announced she was finished. from inside her writing folder she pulled a snoopy birthday card with "happy birthday" preprinted in cursive. inside was the letter she had just finished writing to me. then she took out a gift bow and stuck it right on top of the preprinted writing.
"I brought it from home" she announced proudly. "but I'm sorry the writing is scribble scrabble" she said as she pointed to the cursive birthday message. "it was all we had so I covered it with this bow"

I love my job.

I love my snoopy card with it's big red bow and the inside message I helped her write.

best teacher compliment ever

at the end of guided reading today a first grader looked at me and said,

"mrs. lipstick, you always give us hard books and make us think a lot"

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

st patrick's day

things i love about my job:

-i get to put my hand in paint to make leprechaun "footprints" around the classroom.

-i get to listen to first graders and kindergartners squeal with delight when they discover said footprints.

-as i walk down the hallways i am greeted by "guess what mrs. lipstick, you'll NEVER believe it- a leprechaun came to our classroom today!"

-first graders will totally buy any learning experience you throw at them if it has some small tie-in to the current holiday.

-i get to listen to children who proudly don't believe in santa claus search their classroom for leprechauns, because they know those little men are real.

-i get a kick out of watching little girls from south america, asia and india come to school in green shirts that say "everybody loves an irish girl"

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

who needs green beer when you've got 5, 6, and 7 year olds?
beer is WAY to weak to help a teacher recover from this day anyway.

selfish acts- my bday present to myself

i realized, at some point in my life, that i am happiest when working with children. whether or not this is a failure at some point in my childhood which leads me to try to please others (but i don't think so) or just nature- i believe st. augustine argues is not a virtue because i am therefore only helping others to help myself, which is then a selfish act. but, economic theory of comparative advantage and ayn rand would argue we should do what we're good at and enjoy, and it all gets fuzzy from there.

philosophy of selfishness of good deeds aside, i decided last year that for my birthday i would make a cake with one of my frog bloggers since he and i share the same birthday (frog blog = an experiment last year that failed, but left me with frog that is still alive and kicking much to mr. lipstick's chagrin). this year i no longer see my birthday day-mate except for occasionally in the hallways where, if he is in a good mood, he'll give me a half hearted smile and then shuffle away, and if he's in a bad mood he'll drape his hoodie over his head and refuse to talk to me at all. so it's not like we have continued a close relationship this year. but, i figure he should still know that teachers at this school care about him even if he thinks he is too cool for us.

regardless, we share a birthday, and since i am doubtful anyone at home does much to celebrate his birthday, i decided last year that he and i would celebrate our bdays together as long as we were in the same school. so this year i contacted his teacher who nicely let me invade her classroom (and her student teacher's first full day of independent teaching) in the afternoon to celebrate my frog blogger's bday even though it is a school policy not to do such things anymore. (shhhh! but i did run it by the parent of the student with peanut allergies...)

who doesn't want to ice cupcakes in school for their bday? it made my day, even if my frog blogger looked at me like i was nuts when i told him he could lick the icing off the spatula since it was his bday. and he looked at me like i should be dead when he found out i was 20 years older than him. (ok, no lie, that hurt a bit. i mean, i'm not that old!)

there is a twinge of guilt that for my own birthday enjoyment i invaded a 2nd grade classroom. does it make it ok that it meant my frog blogger got to celebrate his birthday by sharing cupcakes with his friends?
then again, if i wasn't the kind of person who was excited to spend my bday icing cupcakes with a second grader i probably wouldn't be a teacher.

so, whether or not i'm selfish or caring, i enjoyed my birthday cupcakes and i hope my frog-blogger did too.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

in walked a buddhist, a evangelica, and a jehovah's witness...

i woke up this morning with those unmistakable signs of being sick. the stuffy nose, the sore throat, the head and body ache. then slowly, as i gained consciousness, i remembered the events of yesterday. oh yes. that's why, i thought, shuddering at the memories.

yesterday was our day long jump rope clinic at a college in another state. we go every year but this year we couldn't afford the bus to take us so we had to ask parents to caravan down there. this in itself was a task because so many parents didn't feel comfortable driving other children. others said they'd drive but on the actual day they dropped their child off and sped out of our parking lot, leaving us to find seats for the children we were counting on putting in their car. the head coach and i can't drive them ourselves because of a county policy, so we were also forced to drive with the parents. (this, looking back, was a huge mistake. the two of us should have drove by ourselves in a 'coaches car'. if only we had...)

we've finally gotten everyone into cars (and are already getting worried looks from the parents who didn't want to drive any child but their own) when the head coach popped her head out of the car window and flagged me down. "we've got a gps, but it's in spanish" she said. of course we needed to keep it in spanish for the driver herself, but it made it difficult to program if you spoke french and not spanish as your second language, and also made it so the coach couldn't tell where the gps was telling the lead car to go until we were already on the road. every car had directions printed out from mapquest, but of course, our families do not all speak english. the head coach and i laughed. caravaning with drivers who don't all speak the same language was going to be an adventure. ir! as the spanish-speaking gps announced. 'let's go!'

the car i was riding in was driven by the mother of one of my former students, a mother i love, but of course, like so many parents at my school, have never gotten to know well because of the language barrier. now, having me in her car for 2 hours, she was free to work on her questions in english in her mind before quizzing me on the rationals behind the american school systems. i was fascinated by the cultural questions she wanted to know. they'd pop out randomly, seemingly out of nowhere. she'd clearly been choosing her english and working on the perfect way to ask the question before she finally said it.
"why doesn't my child get a present at the end of the school year? in my country we always got a present at the end of the year"
"why doesn't anyone tell me my child's rank in her class? why can't i know?"
"when someone asks my child what country she's from, is she suppose to say america, or vietnam?"
"is private school better than public school? should i be paying money for my child, is that better?"

some of the questions came off as a parent with high expectations, but knowing that she just doesn't know- the schools in vietnam do things one way, she just wanted to know the differences. some of her questions were about the debates currently going on in our county- school starting times, grades, etc. things she's read in the paper but hasn't had anyone to ask about. i was glad i was able to clear things up for questions that were clearly echoing in her head, but it was feeling like a 2 hour parent/teacher conference after awhile.

we finally arrived and got everyone settled into the pace of the day. this is my moment to praise my itouch with kindle app... at moments i didn't need to be coaching i could pull out my touch and keep reading the new wally lamb book i'm immersed in. i love my itouch.

as exhausting as the day always is, it's great to spend time with children outside of the school setting, especially children you've taught. i love getting their insights into the world; their rational on why the world is the way it is. i learned more gossip about my teachers than i'd ever learn from fellow teachers. whew- i'm scared to hear what these kiddos share about me when i'm not around.

the kids took the time to ask questions bothering them about life- what is facebook and why do some people say it's bad, and some people say it's good?
why do i have to learn about my body in 5th grade? (eek to that one)
with others i got to be a part of impromptu book chats- discussing tales of a fourth grade nothing and whether or not super fudge is better, or if shiela the great is better than all of them.

the day dragged on but for the most part just in a monotonous way, nothing overly eventful.

then we piled into the cars to find our way back to school. the spanish speaking gps took us a completely different way than the way we'd come, and, since the head coach couldn't confirm that those directions would get us back to school we ended up pulling over and getting directions from a very nice woman who was adamant we should take the interstate back instead of the small roads we'd taken on the way there. so we did.

this too was a mistake, because, of course, we didn't account for saturday night traffic. we ended up an hour behind schedule, making it a long 13 hour day instead of just 12. it also didn't take into account parents who have not been driving in the US very long, who could not drive in their own countries, and did not feel comfortable driving on 495 but didn't say anything because they were too embarrassed. they hadn't wanted to drive other people's kids anyway, remember?

stuck in traffic on 495 the mother driving my car kept saying she was tired and couldn't keep her eyes open. we couldn't find gum or anything else for her to chew on, so she decided to crank the heat up as far as it would go in the car. although the girls and i rolled our windows down we still felt we were dying of the heat. the starting and stopping of the traffic didn't help, and all 4 of us were feeling car sick.

the overly giggly girls, hyped up on mcdonalds' ice cream, were holding a talent show in the back. i have no idea how the mother was falling asleep with the screaming coming from the back. i was actually very impressed with one little one's impression of me telling them to be quiet. really- she has acting talent i didn't know about. she was dead on.

as we drove past the mormon temple the giggles died down and the conversation turned to god. in the back seat we had a buddhist, a self-described evangelical from ethiopia, and a jehovah's witness. the girls began comparing stories about God (or gods i guess), sharing theories and debating the start of the world. i heard each of their theories on what being catholic means. i was utterly fascinated by their deep understanding of religion in their 3rd and 4th grade reasoning.

and then, as somehow the conversation turned toward monday's practice lockdown and the jehovah's witness shared how scared she was, her breathing turned shallow and she grasped her chest. i assumed she was having a panic attack because of the fears she'd just been sharing, and so when she said, 'i need a bag! do you have a bag!' i was worried, but thought maybe it was for breathing.

nope. the unmistakable odor of vomit filled the car. the car that was already 80 or 90 degrees, and weaving due to our tired driver. luckily most ended up in the bag, but some, sadly ended up in the little one's lap and on the car seat.

the other two girls began gagging, and even i had to roll down the window further to stick my head out as the smell made me begin to gag. i could envision us filling the car with vomit.

the driver was either oblivious to all this, or just chose to ignore it, even when i said, "she's been sick, we need to stop. she threw up. can we pull over?" nope. no response. we continued driving with the poor little one holding her bag of vomit, her lap also covered in what didn't make it into the bag. the two other girls put their head under their coats, which i would have yelled about if i hadn't wanted to do that myself from the combination of the smell and the heat. one kept apologizing to the puker. "i am so sorry! this is so rude of me, but i don't want to be sick too. oh, i'm so sorry! i shouldn't have gagged. please don't be mad at me!" came out in a long jumbled apology from underneath the pink coat.

finally we arrived back at school- the little girl still holding her bag of puke, looking more and more like she wanted to die. we spilled out of the car, the mother still not acknowledging the incident. the only time she did was after i tried to clean her car as much as possible but recommended that she use water on the spot once they were home. "oh don't worry, first daughter will do it" she said, as her child, my former student, winced. the poor mother clearly hadn't wanted to drive us anyway, hadn't wanted to get onto 495, and certainly hadn't wanted a girl she'd never met before to throw up in the back of her car.

thank goodness the day was over.
i drove the sick little girl home, the same little girl whose mother had meant to drive but couldn't because her two year old sister had thrown up that morning. the girl looked like she wanted to die, and i felt nothing i could say would take away what had happened.

and so we've survived another day-long jump rope event. i need a lot more sleep to make up for this one.

Friday, March 13, 2009

and on fridays we like to pretend we are cats

i just got back from a jump rope performance at another school and this is the email that was waiting for me in my inbox. it may be my favorite email of all time.

_______ is currently meowing like a cat on the carpet and rolling around. She has lost all gingerbread men. She seems really happy there, but we can't get her to move. Every time we get close she squaks loudly. She just yelled help and I cracked a smile - it's pretty hilarious actually.
I'll let you know how it turns out. I think we are going to try the "no attention" route. The rest of the class is doing REALLY well with it.

God bless the classroom teacher. i'm kind of sorry i missed it though.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

does doing it longer = doing it better?

in his recent education speech the president mentioned that we need to get rid of the agrarian calendar- keep students in school all year and have longer school days. in truth, for my kids at my school, this is exactly what i think we need. i strongly believe in the year-round model and know that it has made an incredible difference in our children's abilities. and longer school days? at first i hated the idea, but the one thing teachers complain about is time- we never have enough time to teach anything, so yes, we could use a longer day (of course, you'd need to pay us for that time though). can you imagine the skills we could teach? the projects we could do??

but, as assorted stuff pointed out when he wrote about the kipp program- is doing the same thing for longer really that much better? isn't it better to teach it right the first time- teach well and in depth instead of just using the same plan that only kind of works and just spreading it out. like taking silly putty and just pulling to see how far you can stretch it.

i'm one of 5 teachers at my school on an extended contract. i get paid to teach "math club" two mornings a week to struggling third graders. the kids of course think they are the luckiest ducks in the world and don't realize they were hand selected because of their low math scores. it's only 10 kids and we focus on basic skills- addition and subtraction facts- the foundations to math that these children will need to be successful with the more complex concepts. so i do think the longer day helps them. but it's not the mere fact that they are in school longer that is going to help. it's the specified instruction that matches their needs. it's a much smaller group than their normal classroom- they are all about at the same ability level and i can monitor their progress and develop curriculum specifically for them. if one girl needs to work on telling time to the half hour for a month we can do that while the others are working on their specific goals.

but there are children who do not need a longer school day, or who actually learn more from getting out of school early and being able to enjoy other aspects of life- sports teams, music lessons, theater groups, art lessons (all those elements we've had to limit in schools because of nclb). that doesn't mean my math club kiddos don't need math club- it just means every child needs something different.

my school's population benefits from year-round schooling. they are learning english, they have limited opportunities at home, and at school we provide at least 2 meals a day. but there are some schools where children would not benefit from a year-round system. i personally learned more from my month long all girls summer camp where we lived in tents, shot guns, and paddled canoes (i heart camp alleghany!) than i ever would have in the classroom. and everything i learned from the swim team summers, nature camp, or the art projects my brothers and i would cook up in our cool basement on hot summer days. (besides, i didn't like school. i had a happy kid when i was playing in the woods and writing stories with my friends, but i may have curled up and died if i had to spend any more hours in school- doing work i could already do)

i worry that president obama's plan is going to do to education what bush did to education- create a one-size-fits-all model that doesn't take into account the needs of the students. i know i sound libertarian (or-gasp-republican) but i think it should be the decision of the school board. i love that in my huge school system they acknowledged that our schools were different and let 7 schools go year-round while the others stayed with the traditional calendar.

children are different, families are different, and communities are different. yes, personally, please give us a longer school day and a longer school year. let us have those kids in our rooms more than we do now. give me more time.

but don't make other schools go more if they don't need to. let them have other alternatives. let them decide for themselves the best way to meet their populations' needs.

reading faces

today another teacher saw me come out of the teachers' lounge and told me that the office had been calling around looking for me because my bff had disappeared. his class had a substitute and while they were all out at recess the substitute lost sight of him. this is a problem we traditionally have with him- he doesn't like recess and so he'll bring himself in and wander the hallway entrance waiting for his teacher, hang out in the clinic, etc. we've been working on stopping the behavior, but so far no luck. we'd forgotten to warn the substitute of this possibility though, so needless to say she was in a panic.

at this point it had been awhile since they started looking for him and i got worried. he wasn't in the hallway, the cafeteria, or the clinic. i popped into the office to get the full story when i saw him sitting happily in one of the chairs reserved for children in trouble in the office, swinging his legs and reading a book. he'd just put himself there, knowing no one would bother him if he stayed quiet. i'm sure any teacher that walked in thought he was in trouble and didn't say anything to him, and the administrators probably saw him and thought the other administrator knew why he was there. and with a substitute in the mix of it all it's quite possible she could have sent him there out of confusion.

the office staff was not very impressed when they found out the student they thought had gone awol was actually sitting behind them the whole time. as i started to give him a lecture in the office he dance around, checking out what was going on, ignoring me and my speech. then suddenly, in front of everyone in the office, he leaned forward, "wait a minute! what is this?" he asked, pointing to my forehead.

i use to be embarrassed by the worry-lines in my forehead. i'm not even that old, but he's not first kiddo whose asked about such lines. what can i say, i think i came out of the womb worrying.

but, ever thinking about a teachable moment i said,
"yes! do you see that? that's what my face does when i am worried! i was so, so scared when i didn't know where you were. do you see that?"

"worried? from me?" he points at my forehead. for a moment i wonder if he's going to interpret this as it's his fault i have wrinkles. but i go on anyway.

"yes! that's how you can tell i'm worried. i have lines."

"lines? oh! i'm sorry mrs. lipstick. i love you"

"i love you too my bff. now we're going to WALK back to class"

and so we did. throughout the rest of the day when i was trying to redirect his behavior he'd stop, study my face, and say, "oh. you're worried" or "oh, you're sad. i'm sorry" and would then follow directions.

let's see how long i can keep him examining my face for emotions.

it's the first time in my life i've been happy to have wrinkles.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

dancing feet

one of my favorite events at our school is dance night. for the month of february our pe and music teachers co-teach together (this means 4 classes in the gym at one time learning to dance from 4 teachers. these teachers are brave, brave souls). at the end of the month they hold "dance night" at the next door high school gym. our families show up in droves, even those families who avoid our calls and don't come to parent conferences. they dress up in their nicest outfits- some girls show in their puffy princess flower girl dresses, leotards, others in a fancy outfit they put together themselves showing off what their 6 year old fashion sense says is the best outfit they own. the boys come in their khakis, tucked in collard shirts, sweater vests, or traditional clothing from their country. their parents may even put make up on their little girls, spray cologne on the boys, and sit back in pride watching their little one take part in the group dances our music and gym teachers have taught them.

i brought my mother, brother and his girlfriend along this year to check out the fabulous-ness that is my school. my mother, who teaches at a school with a very different population than mine, laughed that it reminded her of the spirit at a football game. the event is by no means a calm, quiet, cultural event. the families sit in the bleachers, laughing and joking with their children. teachers run around, chatting with their students and their parents, encouraging their kiddos to get on the floor to dance with their class, and laughing with their coworkers.

the best part of this event is that it is a place all our parents feel comfortable bringing their children. i'm always amazed at how many parents come to these events when they wont come in our doors at other times. it is a light, happy event. the parents aren't going to be judged for not controlling their children, for not speaking english, for not demonstrating proper knowledge of the schools. then we, as teachers, get to chat with them, laugh together at the children we mutually love, and form bonds we don't get a chance to form the rest of the year.

this morning we were able to start what may have been a contentious parent conference by sharing dance night stories. it started the meeting with laughter and reminded us that everyone at the table truly cared about the best interest of the child we were here to talk about.

i'm always amazed at how much work our pe and music teachers put into this night and how fabulous and well-run it always is.

self coping strategies

at an iep last week a father shared with us that he manages his stress by eating ice cream. something goes wrong at work, he takes a time out and goes for some ice cream.

i need to start leaving ice cream in the school's freezer so i can have easy access instead of just telling myself i just have to wait until i get home to enjoy the frozen goodness.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

the experts verse the teachers

the science goddess blogged about the great divide between the practice that is in the classroom and the "experts" that are telling us what to do. she sums this up excellently.

my grad school frequently talks about the gap between research and practice and as i'm preparing for my comprehensive exams i'm going to have to be ready to write an essay on what can be done about the gap. and of course, i have mixed feelings on this. some of the research i've learned in my grad school has been remarkably helpful to my practice and i don't think i would be surviving my first two years as a special ed teacher if i hadn't had it. other is, well, just research, and frankly, is taking place so far away from the classroom that i have a hard time taking it seriously.

a few years ago when i was a classroom teacher a very well respected university asked our school to pilot a science curriculum they created based on research on gifted and talented programs. not fully understanding what this project was going to entail i was one of the teachers who jumped at the chance to participate in it. (nobody told us it was an intense 3 year study we were signing up for). but as a classroom teacher it sounded incredible. we were going to get trained in these research-based practices and be given a curriculum and materials that would make it possible to use them in our classroom. in theory it was incredible.

then it began. first of all they talked to us like we were idiots, which, was frustrating but we can get past (sadly teachers become use to this). but very quickly, as we began to leaf through the curriculum, we realized how far off it was from anything we could accomplish. but saying that only led us to be labeled as "not having high expectations" and "being old school and not willing to try new things" or being "anti-best practice". which, if you know anything about my school, you know we are not any of these things.

let me tell you, what we were doing for this study was far from best practice.

some elements of it were great. i was in love with it in the beginning. i was frustrated that my coworkers were being nay-sayers. but that ended fairly quickly and i joined their frustrated camp, my hopes of being given good materials slashed.

some of it was simple things that showed how out of touch they were with schools. they were confused why we thought we wouldn't have time to set up a science laboratory for our first graders. "Can't you do that during your prep period?" they asked, "can't your aids do that for you?"

our aides? what aides? during our planning- you mean that 20 minutes when we can respond to parent emails, respond to other teacher's emails, go to the bathroom, and prepare for the other subjects we have to teach during the day. i'm not kidding, i really wanted to set up microscopes for my kids, i just didn't have the time.

but we did it.

they also wanted our first graders to prepare the slides themselves. using a bent paperclip as a scalpel they wanted them to dissect a piece of a leaf, use the water dropper and put one dot of water on a slide. have you ever tried to get a first grader to only use one drop of glue? the phrase 'dot, dot, not alot' comes to mind. it still doesn't work. they still don't use just a drop. but we tried it. we did. it was a disaster. as high as my expectations were they just didn't have the fine motor coordination to do prepare the slides themselves.

the next day we prepared the slides for them.

the best day was when the professors from this university came to our schools and had us do the experiments they wanted us to do with the kids. my table of first grade teachers sat down to do an intense experiment we would be expected to do in our classrooms. it involved nail polish remover and litmus paper and other things i can't remember. but halfway through the poorly written instructions we couldn't understand the nail polish remover ate through the plastic cup they'd given us to use. nail polish remover covered the table. they hadn't even tried the experiment themselves to find out if it worked, or thought about the chemical reaction nail polish has with certain plastics. let alone thought about what would have happened if we had tried this experiment with our class and nail polish remover had ended up on the first graders' tables. do you know how many kids would have tasted it??

yet we endured 3 years of this. we simplified the lessons, gave them our feedback and endured their comments about how our thoughts weren't valuable because we didn't have high enough expectations for our students. (this may be very unfair of me)

the program (which did not take many of the recommendations we made) is now available for sale and people buy it because it is research-based.

i went into the whole thing hopeful. i wanted it to work. i wanted to be in love with this curriculum. i wanted to bring research based practices into my classroom. i wanted to learn how to be a better teacher. feed me information!!

i came away jaded and frustrated.

i hope that other university researchers spend more time listening to teachers, and invest more time in the classroom with students. the professors who visited missed out an a huge opportunity. our think tank of a school showed up willing to work hard and learn. we showed up already buying into what they were saying.

but first the professors assumed we were "just teachers" and started off with a lack of respect for our opinions. they presented us with condescending activities (they even repeated an entire session once. they forgot they'd already done it with us and made us do it again).

when we asked questions like, "how would you like us to teach a child who doesn't speak english how to follow this vocabulary" they told us that by asking that question we were limiting our students. when we asked for material our children would be able to access instead of the small font size an high vocabulary that was above our children's reading level they became more frustrated with us. they disrespected our time, our knowledge abour our own children, and our knowledge about child development.

they started with us in the palm of their hand and through their own actions they led us to be just another set of teachers frustrated by professional development.

Friday, March 6, 2009


today is pixie's last day. she's moving to kenya. who moves to kenya?

i've worked with her everyday for two years now. she's the little one who on the first day of kindergarten raised her hand and said, "excuse me, but i 'm ready to go to ms. dodd's class now" referring to her summer school teacher. i don't know if she was just telling us she was done with us, or if she thought she was suppose to go to summer school instead of kindergarten. she was a daily part of lunch bunch last year and this year she's kept me on my toes during guided reading and in our writing workshop group. i can't even process how much i'm going to miss this little one! i've watched her go from being unable to draw circles on a page to being able to write actual stories with actual letters formed correctly.

she's a cross between ramona and madeline and our school wont be the same without her!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

my side of a conversation from today:

"please don't put my pen in your nose"
"take it out"
"that's gross. take it out"
"please don't put it near me now that you put it in your nose"
"no, i don't want to touch it"
"no, i am not touching the pen you put in your nose"
"no, the other teachers don't want to touch it either"
"we don't care if you washed it. we are not touching the pen"

lately i feel like snot and boogers are my main points of conversations.

Monday, March 2, 2009

so whose eligible for special ed? and how do we know?

yesterday i sat down to do my grad school work and was excited to see i had to read an article titled: Who is eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act? from the Journal of Law & Education (Garda, 2006). after some recent eligibility meetings and other discussions with teachers on how student's qualify for special ed i've had many unanswered questions swimming around in my head. finally, answers!

the thing is, i think about law school a lot. i took one class at the law school while i was in undergrad and i was in heaven. i loved it. i like law. it is like a logic problem. you don't always have to agree with the law to understand how to operate inside it. so i hold onto these little bits of special education law because they give me rules and lines where otherwise i'd be lost. sure i get frustrated that i can't get a child services when he or she obviously has a disability, but i tell myself the supreme court ruled that IDEA only provides a student with a free and appropriate education- being on grade level is considered appropriate, so if a student is on grade level he or she does not qualify for special ed under FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education) and IDEA.

at least, that's what i thought before.
now i have more questions than i did before, along with a headache, and i'm even more frustrated and lost with the process than i was before.

what i read-
the basics:
Under the Individuals with Education Act (IDEA) children are eligible for special education if:
1) a student has been diagnosed with a disability.
2) the student's disability adversely affects the student's educational performance
3) this adverse affect creates a need for special education.

IDEA doesn't define what an educational performance is (just academic performance or does it include social situations?), how adverse an affect has to be before being considered significant, and what constitutes a NEED for special education. Meaning, all three of these definitions are left up to the states, and if the states have not decided (most haven't), they are left up to the decision makers in counties or schools. Then, parents or school systems can take it to court where the definition gets made until that court case is overturned. nothing really is defined at all until it makes it to the supreme court.

Which means, we have no answers. it's a big mess of jumping around backwards to see if we land in the right hoops to keep playing the game.

Garda argues that many students, particularly those with emotional disabilities, are not identified for special education services because the school systems define educational performance as relating to only academic grades and test scores. As classroom teachers this is something that frustrates us frequently. We can see a child crying out for help, but told we can only do so much, because the child is on level academically, or just isn't failing as much as he could be.

this is perhaps were i get the most frustrated. when we clearly see a student has something impacting his learning. he's not failing now, but it's early years. it's kindergarten or first grade. we have smaller classes, more teachers, less academics. we're focused on learning to read, but not yet reading to learn. what happens when this little one we've been holding up and pushing through for so long gets into harder grades? with no support? and standardized tests? can't we give a student support before his disability has a significant "adverse affect" on his learning? can't we prevent a student from going backwards? isn't that what we signed on to do? to teach?

Garda also argues that a need for special education should be considered if the student's educational performance is poor or below average. meaning, the student does not have to fail an entire grade to prove he needs services.

so many of the teachers i work with become so disheartened with the sped process. i don't blame them. you see a child in need, do all you can for him, take lots and lots of data but are stopped at the gate for not letting the child fail, or because when he is not failing at the right things.

they're kids, these little people we spend so much time talking about at these meetings. they are children who have potential and a life ahead of them. they don't fit into an easy definition and they don't easily let us know what they need. we get into teaching to help them become good little citizens, to teach them to read, to teach them to advocate for themselves in life. these decisions about eligibility leave so much open to how we'll educate them. somehow it doesn't seem right that to give a kid all we know he needs we first have to pass through the eligibility gate.

i use to think i could rely on the little bits of the law to help myself make sense of the process. when i was told, "oh, he wont qualify" it's because of the way the law is applied in that situation. i can understand that. i may not agree with it, but i get that our hands are tied.

yet after reading this article and learning how open IDEA has left everything, and how even the cases that have made it to the Supreme Court are still misinterpreted by school systems, leaving many children without services, i'm more disheartened than i've ever been by the process.

**snow** a moment of gloating. please excuse.

while my college classmates may be at their high paying, highly respected jobs the alumni magazine always writes about, they had to brave the weather this morning. i saw those like them huddled by the bus stop this morning, or brushing off their cars while looking bitter about the weather. but, my friends, while you have more earning potential than i do, and people don't respond with "how cute!" when they hear what you do for a living, you do not have the pleasures of a snow day.

God gave teachers a snow day- His way of saying thank you for all the hard work we do during the year.

i love snow.